“Many years ago the United States decided to open its doors to all, regardless of creed or nationality. This has created unique problems of cultural differences which more homogenous nations, such as Japan, simply do not face. We need to promote and recognize that we are indeed “one nation”; that we face the same problems, privileges, responsibilities, and challenges as our neighbors. Thus, those in authority must be pro-active in remediating both the moral deficit and lack of national spirit in our people. While we do not want to be aggressively nationalistic, we do want to feel we have something in common with our fellow Americans other than just physical proximity. We need a sense of community and the recognition that it is indeed a privilege to be an American; that we are all “in it together”-qualities we gain not be talking, but by raising the standard of what it means to be an American.”
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With the myriad of issues facing the U.S. today, my saying that the one of our primary problems is a lack of national spirit may leave you incredulous. Now I’m not suggesting that we put on our red, white, and blue party hats and make sure everyone celebrates the fourth of July, or that we all memorize the Constitution, although this might not hurt. Nor am I suggesting the type of narrow minded nationalism which preceded the World Wars in Europe. I fully recognize that we live in a global community that is becoming ever smaller and that it is essential that we understand this if we are to not only survive, but also thrive, in the twenty-first century.
The national spirit that I’m referring to is probably better described as national cohesiveness. We need to recognize that regardless of economic position, educational level, ethnicity, religion, or any other indicator, we have shared interests with other people in the United States that we simply don’t have with citizens of other countries. We face the same problems, privileges, responsibilities, and challenges, and, regardless of our differences, really are “in it together.”
As a country, however, we simply haven’t been very good at this idea of national cohesion. The “citizenship experience” of one American isn’t necessarily the same as the experience of another American, and the more different the neighborhood you live in, economic position, educational level, etc., the more chance there is that “your America” will be different from “my America.”
Regardless, we need it to survive. It is the glue or cement, if you will, that spurs us on toward sacrifice for the benefit of the whole, a concept that has become increasingly foreign to us, but one without which we will find ourselves a group of cohabitating strangers rather than a national family.
So what, you might ask, are some ways to promote “national cohesiveness”? One of the ways to do this is by building traditions and ceremonies. Religion traditionally serves this purpose, but is an effective way to build traditions and ceremonies only when the majority is of one particular religion and agrees to promote that religion. Because of the increasing (although the percentages are still quite low at this point) numbers of people of non-Judeo Christian background in our country, we have become increasingly religio-phobic regarding officially promoting the traditions of Judeo-Christianity. Thus, a vacuum of shared tradition exists and we must fill it if we are to feel that we have something in common with our fellow citizens.
In Confucius Lives Next Door, T.R. Reid explains, “About one million new graduates—kids who have finished high school or college about a month before this big day—start their working careers on April 1 every year” (p. 154)]. Thus, the day all new high school and college graduate begin work is one of the ways the Japanese instill values in their new graduates. T.R. Reid continues, “A society should make a collective fuss about a day so important in the lives of a million of its citizens A society should sit back and take the time to make sure these young people understand the privileges and responsibilities that come with moving on to a new stage of life. Any society…can benefit from the rituals and ceremonies that remind people that they live in a community with a shared moral and cultural tradition…The whole point of ceremonies like…[that] is to tell the members what is expected of them. Then a company, a school, or a community will rely on the members’ basic human decency to make them live up to expectations…” (p. 159)
Besides a national “initiate the new workers into the workforce day” (which might not specifically work in the U.S. because we hire employees when we need them, not once a year), the Japanese also hold official coming of age ceremonies, something which could work with great success here.
“Of the countless ceremonies held regularly in Japan, my favorite was Seijin-shiki, the Coming-of-Age Ceremony, held annually on January 15. On that date each year, all the Japanese who will turn twenty during the year are toasted and honored in official ceremonies during which they are officially recognized as adult citizens of Japan, with all the rights and all the many responsibilities appurtenant thereto…[it] is one of the chief means of inculcating the national sense of responsibility that helps make the country polite, civil, and safe.” (p. 161)
I especially like Mr. Reid’s assessment of the effectiveness of this ceremony. “It would be romantic to the point of naivete to suggest that all the ninetten-year-olds in Japan that day came storming out of the local Seijin-shiki armed with a new determination to work hard, obey the law, and devote themselves selflessly to the overall society. But some of them probably did react that way. And all of those who attended at least were made aware that the community had expectations for them—that the society had certain values and that the values were important, important enough for the whole country to take a holiday, and for the city to hold a ceremony, and for their parents to shell out big yen for the necessary outfits. The so-called Confucian values or Asian values on display at the Coming-of-Age Ceremony were no better than, and not much different from, the Judeo-Christian values or Islamic values or humanistic values treasured in other parts of the world. But the Japanese, at least on January 15 every year, were doing a better job of emphasizing how much those values matter.” (p. 166)
Of course, we in the U.S. have graduation ceremonies, but these are more an acknowledgement of academic accomplishment and a type of “I’m done!” celebration rather than a “you’re a fully functioning member of society and we expect you to live up to your responsibilities” event. Graduations are conducted by institutions of learning; a coming-of-age ceremony should probably be conducted by the municipality, perhaps even with the mayor presiding, to give it authenticity and substance. What could motivate young adults to attend? Any of a number of things. It could be the only way to register to vote; if feasible, a financial perk such as a certificate for $1000 off an item such as a new car or $5000 off the purchase of a new home in the community could be handed out. The possibilities are endless, actually, but the purpose is to get everybody there, and impress upon them that they are now adult members of society with responsibilities to our society. What do you think?